URL to IRL: Controversial Artist Ryder Ripps Captures the Struggle of Existing on the Internet

The bold digital artist and entrepreneur rises above recent criticism with new installation, "Alone Together."

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For his latest feat, the multifarious artist and digital designer Ryder Ripps has remade the vast Internet in miniature.

Ripps, 28, constructed the piece, titled Alone Together, at the cavernous Red Bull Studios in New York for the eponymous energy drink manufacturer. “It’s like a geode, the inside of a gem,” he says of the installation, which opened on February 27.

Visitors ascend metal steps into a rough-hewn box. Inside, an immersive rainbow of projected imagery and text covers every wall. This content is provided by the live web-surfing of six people stationed in faux-corporate cubicles downstairs from the gallery space, linked to the Internet-geode by a thick set of cables. “Each has their own unique use of the Internet: a gamer, blogger, someone who’s obsessed with online shopping,” Ripps says.

Images via Red Bull

Alone Together exposes the underside of the funny tweets and weird videos that form the social web. “The Internet is driven, it’s something that’s powered,” Ripps says. What powers it is people, though users might not always recognize it. Ripps knows this ecosystem well. His influence on the Internet zeitgeist has been remarkable, with projects ranging from the March 2012 launch of a fake Kanye West start-up, which fooled media giants, to Drake Shake, a viral app launched in December 2013 that humorously adds Drake to one’s photos.

The artist has a unique way of playing all sides of the Internet. Alone Together is particularly impressive because Red Bull paid OKFocus, the creative agency that Ripps co-founded with Jonathan Vingiano in 2011, to design pop-up websites. The bleed-over between art and branding that Ripps is a part of online signals a larger shift. “The way artists use computers is more along the lines of what’s actually going to make money and move society forward than the way accountants use computers,” Ripps says.

Images by Liz Barclay

Ripps is, in fact, turning art into money. But in digital art’s march toward a more traditional set of collectors and institutions, Ripps has stayed more avant garde than most simply by embracing economic reality wholesale rather than just dabbling in it. If in the dystopian, media-obsessed present individuals have become brands, then, to crib from Orwell, some people are more branded than others. In this respect, Ripps is surely the Michelangelo of his time.

Branded commerce has always driven the art economy. Why else pay millions for Damien Hirst’s stuffed shark in a tank if not to own its aura of fame? But rather than simply acting like a business, Warhol–style, Ripps has taken the extra step of straight-up becoming one. Artist collectives like K-HOLE pose as trend-forecasting companies, as they did for the New Museum’s new Internet-friendly triennial Surround Audience, but Ripps was already there and turning a profit, netting commissions for OKFocus from art-world clients as well as companies like Nike and Google that propelled his personal artistic career.

“The way artists use computers is more along the lines of what’s actually going to make money and move society forward than the way accountants use computers."
-Ryder Ripps

According to Ripps, the difference between his individual artistic practice—composed of projects like Alone Together, gallery shows (including an exhibition of paintings at the widely respected Postmasters gallery), and online pop-ups—and OKFocus’ commercial advertising is “just motive.” “If you’re a client, and you approach OKFocus to do something, it’s a collaboration that’s reaching the client’s goal,” he explains. “But if you’re a company, like Red Bull, and you approach me to do an art thing, I’m going to do art, which is going to be to my goal.”

Rather than stigmatizing him, this ability to cross boundaries is part of what made Ripps appealing to Red Bull. “What is interesting about Ryder is that he possesses a rare ability to navigate two seemingly disparate worlds, as both a conceptual artist and as a creative director,” says Red Bull Studios programming manager Max Wolf. “He has done some incredible work for Red Bull, among other brands, through OKFocus. However, we were interested in seeing what Ryder the conceptual artist would do.” For a company that wants to market itself as a creative lifestyle brand rather than merely something to mix with vodka, Ripps is a one-stop shop.

Images by Liz Barclay

Ripps’ family background may explain the ease with which he moves between art and commerce. His father, Rodney Ripps, is an expressionist painter turned New York City real estate agent and his mother, Helene Verin, is a designer whose work includes shoes, rugs, and wallpaper. A childhood spent on the early Internet led him to attend City as School, a West Village public high school set apart by its emphasis on practical internships. “It was the best experience ever for me,” Ripps says. “I was a total shithead kid and got in tons of trouble and hated school but thrived in this thing. I could intern at a music studio or public television, all over the place.”

City as School plays a part in Alone Together, where it’s partnered with the digital collective Powrplnt to create a classroom in the back of the space with lessons on programming, design, and cultural provocation for students as well as the public. “They’re learning the computer but also learning it through a frame of art,” Ripps says. “That’s unique for a 16-year-old. You can take a computer class, but it’s not going to open your mind up.”

After City as School, Ripps attended the New School, then created OKFocus after graduating in 2011, carving out a space that exists sometimes uneasily between art and business. “Ryder is an artist who has an acute sense and understanding of how we operate within the media-driven reality and what it represents creatively,” says Magda Sawon, founder of the Postmasters gallery.

Photo by Liz Barclay

He continues to garner attention despite detractors like Art F City founder Paddy Johnson, who in late January decried “the total absence of a defensible idea” in his work, following a project called “Art Whore,” which Ripps carried out under the auspices of Ace Hotel New York. The artist was given $50 and a room for the night to make whatever work he chose. Ripps then hired purveyors of “sensual massages” on Craigslist to come to the hotel and make drawings in his stead, which he posted to Instagram, referring to his assistants as “sex workers.”

The piece was ad-hoc and crudely presented; the shitstorm that it touched off in art media thus not entirely unexpected, with Paddy Johnson, Rhizome, and Dazed piling on criticism. (Vice supported the work.) The response speaks to Ripps’ ability to do, perhaps semi-subconsciously, precisely what provokes the loudest shouts from what is usually a low-key community. “Art Whore” was certainly in poor taste. But to respond to Johnson’s critique from above, the idea of the work might just be that it works, encapsulating and inhabiting the tide of the Internet much as the desk surfers of Alone Together do. In the online attention economy, Ripps is rich.

That the artist is on the cutting edge of culture is indisputable. His Instagram account has documented his business meetings with Kanye West, the star he once pranked. OKFocus works with innovative clothing brands like Kenzo and Been Trill (at Red Bull Studios, Ripps wears a pinstriped blazer and modish scarf over a screenprinted T-shirt and jeans gnarled with fashionably superfluous seams). Ripps’ art is also being funded, as Alone Together proves. But that only makes him more of a target.

"Gettin' Ready" by Ryder Ripps (2014) / Image via Postmasters
"Mona Lisa" by Ryder Ripps (2014) / Image via Postmasters

Ripps’ Postmasters exhibition, Ho, featured cartoonishly distorted versions of selfies that model and fitness celebrity Adrianne Ho posted on Instagram, which were then transferred to canvas by artists who also worked for Jeff Koons. At the opening in January, tension plucked the crowd over an anonymous note Ripps received threatening that if he didn’t cancel the show, there would be an ambush that “won’t involve physical violence, but it will be highly embarrassing.” The opening proceeded and the promised attack turned out to be two dudes, bare-chested and wearing stringy red wigs, impersonating drunk fraternity brothers. The duo pranced between the painted canvases hung on the gallery wall, but it wasn’t the artist who should have been embarrassed.

The lame attempt at satire was meant to lampoon Ripps as an “Art Bro,” a label applied to several others in his generation of Internet-driven artists whose work is marked by digital machismo. The group, including Parker Ito, Brad Troemel, and Artie Vierkant, has lately found success in the art market, perhaps because the artists’ so-called “Post-Internet” work is equally at home displayed on an iPhone screen, hung in a gallery, or mounted in the lobby of a suitably hip small-chain hotel.

“What is interesting about Ryder is that he possesses a rare ability to navigate two seemingly disparate worlds, as both a conceptual artist and as a creative director.”
-Max Wolf

For Ripps, working as part of a creative agency gives him license to avoid some of the more onerous aspects of the art world that have “totally pigeonholed” his colleagues. “The freedom that I have at OKFocus is way more than a fucking zombie formalist painting,” Ripps says, referencing the catch-all term for messy abstraction popularized by critic Walter Robinson. “I look at that shit and I think, yo, that’s the opposite of freedom. Oh my God, and that whole bullshit Post-Internet phrase, it’s a total cop-out.”

Indeed, why turn your artwork into salable commodities when the same ideas can be sold to brands alongside the art, which becomes a kind of loss-leader, like couture is to ready-to-wear? As art galleries turn into brands and brands acquire art galleries, Ripps shows it’s not so difficult to become your own boss. Rembrandt van Rijn, who marketed his signature portraits as lifestyle goods to a booming middle class of merchants during the Dutch Baroque, would be proud.

Image via Red Bull

Proving that an artist can be a business may be the principal accomplishment of Ripps’ practice. He is, above all, a realistic denizen of today’s Internet, an engine of culture that has a well-established ability to turn innovation into money with few steps between. The problem with the Internet, though, is that it’s always moving on, and success is ephemeral, signaled by a few likes or retweets that always leave a desire for more.

In Alone Together, there’s a small button that visitors can push to let the laboring cultural creators know that they like what the surfers are finding. “The Like button is a humorous element,” Ripps says. “You realize this button that you hit just turns on a light downstairs that’s really small.” In the meantime, the images keep flashing by one after another inside the geode, regardless of how much they’re liked. For better or worse, life now includes this torrent of content that stops for no man, woman, meme, or artist. “The whole implication of the feed is that it changes, and it changes a lot,” Ripps says. “Instagram’s not going to exist in five years. The image is temporary.”

In the meantime, before ephemerality sets in, Ripps is simply moving with the current and making the best of it. “People get so serious about their Likes,” he says. “You realize how stupid it is.”

Visit "Alone Together" at Red Bull Studios New York (220 W. 18th Street) through April 12, 2015 from 12 p.m. - 7 p.m.​

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